Alex Garland keeps his mind trained on the near future, perpetually imagining that the dire consequences of millennia of human folly are waiting just around the corner to mug us. Published in 1996, his first novel The Beach envisioned the fallout of sending a generation raised on screens into a state of nature. His scripts for Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and 28 Days Later (which I wouldn’t advise revisiting amid the coronavirus pandemic) delved into dystopia and apocalypse. In his first two film projects as writer and director, 2015’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation, Garland teased the prospect of human obsolescence, if not extinction, in scenarios involving artificial intelligence and environmental crisis. His ascendance from buzzy young author to A-list filmmaker has coincided with an intensifying ambient sense that we’re living in the End Times.
The same anxieties about the immediate future animate the suspenseful, visually sumptuous and—perhaps hubristically—ambitious Devs, debuting March 5, which is both Garland’s first TV project and the inaugural streaming-exclusive release from FX on Hulu. Like Ex Machina and Annihilation, its cosmic scope springs from a simple scenario: Lily (Garland regular Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman, of Nocturnal Animals and Gaspar Noé’s XXX romantic drama Love) are a couple who cohabit in San Francisco and work at a quantum computing giant called Amaya. Every day, they ride a company bus to a campus where centuries-old redwoods with vividly green leaves tower over concrete buildings and are, in turn, dwarfed by a huge, unsettlingly realistic statue of a little girl. They seem to be true believers in Amaya, earnestly talking shop in their free time.
We meet the couple on the most important morning of Sergei’s career. After presenting some impressive research to Amaya’s shaggy, downbeat founder, Forest (Nick Offerman, smartly cast in a not-at-all-comedic role), he’s promoted to the titular Devs—an elite team whose activities are a closely guarded secret. The first sign that Devs might mean more than just a sweet paycheck is the isolated structure where the division is housed. On the outside, it’s a sort of brutalist temple, its flared shape recalling ancient Mayan pyramids; inside, the dappled walls have a golden glow, like a Yayoi Kusama light installation constructed out of honeycombs and circuitry. The labs are protected by a vacuum shield and can only be accessed via a floating transport pod, the physics of which may or may not make sense to viewers with more scientific training than myself. When Sergei gets his first glimpse of the code he’s supposed to be working on, he has an emotional breakdown.
He doesn’t come home from work that day, leaving Lily—the show’s real hero—to investigate his disappearance, initially by appealing to Forest and Amaya’s intimidating head of security, Kenton (veteran character actor Zach Grenier, in a chilling performance). Although that search for answers gives Devs the propulsive pace of a thriller, it’s mostly a way into the mysterious world Forest has built; viewers learn of Sergei’s fate long before Lily does, and as we grow more and more immersed in the story, our curiosity about the nature, goals and underlying philosophy of Devs becomes the greater source of suspense. (For those who can’t resist staying up all night to binge a certain kind of TV show, it’s probably for the best that, after a two-part premiere, Hulu will be rolling out new episodes weekly.)
It’s hard to get deep into the philosophical core of the show without revealing too much about Lily’s quest. Suffice to say that, along with reflecting Garland’s own interests, Devs tackles many of the same questions as peers like Westworld and Black Mirror: How should we think about death when data is eternal—and when it’s likely we live in one of infinite possible worlds? What role can free will play in events anticipated by predictive algorithms? Is it conceivable that we’re living in a computer simulation, a theory that has only gained pop-culture credence since Oxford physicist Nick Bostrom popularized it in 2003?
These are heady, brain-warping ideas. And it is to Garland’s credit that he has the courage to confront them head-on, resorting to neither the gratuitously gamified narrative of Westworld or Black Mirror’s sensationalism. As a result, Devs is able to balance challenging concepts with clear storytelling—more like The Matrix, that pioneer of computer-simulation sci-fi, than like its gimmicky contemporaries. There’s a spiritual component to the show as well, though one that verges on cliché thanks to a soundtrack that goes heavy on Gregorian chanting. (Similarly, the recitation of famous poems—Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”—can feel pretentious.) If the ending seems pat after so much abstraction, well, that’s an occupational hazard of stories that take on cosmic themes, from Carl Sagan’s Contact to Annihilation itself.
Devs finds Garland adopting a ponderous tone that recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life; he even evokes prehistory in the same way those films do. Whether this appeals to you is probably a matter of taste. Personally, I think the show would’ve benefited from a few scenes that shattered its reverent veneer, like Ex Machina’s unforgettable robot dance sequence. But the fact that this level of solemnity can get particularly tiring over the course of eight episodes—and the flat vagueness of characters that are vehicles for ideas—suggests that Garland might be more suited to feature filmmaking than to TV. (In interviews, he has intimated that the change in medium was, among other things, a practical decision.)
Yet for all its flaws, I enjoyed Devs immensely. Lyrical cinematography and performances (from a cast that also includes a zen-calm Alison Pill as Forest’s deputy and theater actor Jin Ha as Lily’s loyal, wounded ex) whose immediacy salvages the underwritten characters make each episode a pleasure to watch. Amid the glut of prestige TV, it turns out that a smart, experimental sci-fi show that knows entertainment value and depth aren’t mutually exclusive still feels like something special.